The Lefts and Letters of Peter Sedgwick: Part One

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The first New Left in Britain emerged from the crisis in the Communist Party of Great Britain following the sending of Soviet tanks to Hungary. The party’s support for the Soviet invasion exposed with absolute clarity the contrast between the rhetorical Leninism of its leadership and its actual practice as an occasional meeting place of ageing trade union bureaucrats barely to the left of the Labour mainstream. Falling back on the debating skills of the philosophunculist, editor of the party’s theoretical publication and Oxford-trained patrician Rajani Palme Dutt, the party’s local branches witnessed a series of lengthy meetings in which Dutt would rise to defend Stalin’s long campaign of murders and the party’s young activists would rise to protest against him. A favourite heckle of the critics, “Spots on the Sun”, was inspired by a notorious Palme Dutt editorial published on the opening pages of the party’s journal Labour Monthly in May 1956, “What are the essential themes of the Great Debate? Not about Stalin. That there are spots on any sun would only startle an inveterate Mithra-worshipper.” A series of branches voted to criticise Palme Dutt and the Communist Party’s leadership but over the course of a two-year faction fight those same leaders drove out around 10,000 of the most passionate members of the Party, enough to re-establish their control over those who remained.

Forced out, the dissidents in the New Left had to decide whether they would continue to organise and how: The Reasoner, the journal of the CP opposition was renamed The New Reasoner and ultimately merged with its student counterpart The Universities and Left Review to become The New Left Review. A number of New Left Clubs and Socialist Forums were set up across the country. The most successful forum was in London where a Universities and Left Review Club meeting above the Partisan Coffee House in Soho was able to maintain events with a weekly audience of around 300 people. Within two years, however, the Club had gone out of existence; and while the subscription figures of NLR remained impressive, there was no longer a movement beneath it. The generation of the New Left would have left little trace had in not been for the launch of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in winter 1957-8. The Communist Party ignored this new campaign; in almost every area the New Left provided CND’s initial cadres.

Of those who left the Communist Party, most remained active trade union or peace campaigners but did not join any new group. One mini-generation of activists (Peter Fryer, Brian Pearce, Brian Behan) joined up with Gerry Healy to launch a paper The Newsletter, the origin of Healy’s Socialist Labour League, later the Workers Revolutionary Party. Among the key figures within the New Left, the more common view of Healy was of initial interest giving way to open scepticism. John Saville (who had launched The Reasoner with EP Thompson), memorably dismissed Healy as “three faced”. The WRP was in turn to succumb to further splits: the building worker activist Brian Behan going on to work with anarchists, while Peter Fryer who had once been the Daily Worker’s correspondent in Budapest became a full-time writer. Martin Grainger, once of the WRP, founded the libertarian-Marxist group Solidarity. The philosopher Alasdair Macintyre made his way cautiously from the CP via the WRP to Tony Cliff’s Socialist Review Group (SRG, later “IS”, short for “International Socialism” or “the International Socialists”, the forerunner of today’s SWP).

Almost the only person to have made the journey directly from the CP to SRG/IS, without even a short Healyite interlude, was the psychologist and future translator of Victor Serge, Peter Sedgwick (1934-1983), who joined the SRG in 1958 and remained a member for two decades. On Sedgwick’s death, a group of his friends collected some of Sedgwick’s letters and deposited them at the Bishopsgate Institute in London. Altogether around 50 letters were deposited, and we can use them to reconstruct the political milieu in which he worked. There are many omissions from them, reflecting the partiality of these friendships. There is little mention in them of Sedgwick’s childhood as an orphan whose adoptive mother suffered dementia, or of his life as a Christian before he became a teenage Communist (a trajectory he shared with Alasdair Macintyre). They also give few clues as to Sedgwick’s professional life, successively as a university psychologist, a tutor at a psychiatric prison, and a lecturer in politics and then politics and psychiatry.

This article, and two further pieces which will follow it, use the letters to illuminate three periods of Sedgwick’s political life: first, his politics as a Communist before the 1956 faction fight; second, his membership of SRG and its successor International Socialism in the early 1960s, third his friendship with David Widgery in the 1970s.

They should be read alongside Ian Birchall’s political biography of Sedgwick (http://grimanddim.org/historical-writings/2013-peter-sedgwick-lenin-and-leninism/), the collection of articles about Sedgwick on the Marxists Internet Archive (https://www.marxists.org/archive/sedgwick/index.htm), and the reminiscences and memoirs of Sedgwick that friends have published online (http://www.petersedgwick.org/navigation/Home.html)

One of the earliest letters in the Sedgwick correspondence is from July 1955 to Raph (or, as he was then known, “Ralph”) Samuel. A fellow student at Balliol College Oxford, and a younger cousin of Chimen Abramsky (Secretary of the CP’s Jewish committee, member of its international secretariat and chairman of its Middle East sub-committee), Samuel had been a Communist since his youth. Until Sedgwick’s arrival at Balliol, he was the dominant personality among the Oxford student Communists. What comes over is the loyalty of Sedgwick (and, we must also assume, his reader Samuel who had recruited him) to the Party: “I have just acquired British Soldier In India”, Sedgwick writes, “which is a really splendid collection of letters, making one both proud to be a Communist and desirous to be a better one.”

The letter continues with references to the 1955 Liverpool dock strike, now usually seen on the left as a key moment in the fracturing of the Communists’ industrial hegemony, after they had actively supported the old leadership of the Transport and General Workers’ Union against a new, rank and file union (the NASD / the “blue” union) which had the support of most Liverpool dockers. Sedgwick supported the line taken by the Communists, even to the extent of disapproving of an unofficial strike:

“We were both wrong: you in thinking that the party disapproved of the issue at stake we accept the idea of recognition now the Blue Union is here: they of course are now threatening to create a further breakaway – a Northern NASD all on its own. It wasn’t very clear from the Worker what our attitude was. Because a majority of Dockers wanted a strike, we didn’t attack the decision, and the comrades in the T & G came out in support, without strike pay, for a dispute they didn’t agree with. As soon as the majority of dockers had drifted back, the unofficial T & G committee up here was in a position to recommend a return – but it was tricky going…”

Another letter from August 1955 was a wild and humorous plea from Sedgwick for the return of money he had loaned Samuel: “I NEED THAT MONEY. Understand?  Though I speak with tongues of men and of angels, and have not money, I am nothing. Creditors of the world, unite. If money be the food of love, pay up. Give me back my ducats. Solvency will be preserved if the Peters of the world take their money into their own hands, and defend it to the utmost. Bankruptcy may become inevitable if the borrowers succeed in deceiving the Peters with a web of promises, and so leading them into catastrophe. In the beginning was the cheque. And debt shall have no more dominion. And so on.”

The rest is a poem begging Raph for money. Its opening must have been written with the tune of ‘Miss Molly had a Dolly’ playing in Sedgwick’s inner ear: “Hurry hurry hurry, quick quick quick / Or the bailiff will come with his brass-lipped stick”. There are threats of a metaphorical imprisonment if Samuel fails to pay a debt owed by him, promises of intellectual (“And the Master of Balliol shake your hand”) and sexual renaissance (“The queen will receive you into her bed / And put big ideas into your head”) if he does pay, and a hint at the end of another popular song, ‘My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean’: “All this and more will really be / If you will pay my money to me.”

Through winter 1955-6 Sedgwick corresponded regularly with Jean McCrindle, the Communist daughter of the blacklisted actor Alex McCrindle, recently of the radio series Dick Barton, then working full time for Equity and many years later General Jan Dodonna in Star Wars. McCrindle was following her father’s roots back to Scotland where she was a first year student at St Andrews. At times, Sedgwick would advise McCrindle, purely platonically, on the merits of different tactics for establishing a Communist cell from scratch at St Andrews (he proposed that she launch a Socialist Club, open to Labour and Communist students alike). In other passages, he would describe McCrindle as “lovely one”, “owl” or “my heroine”. He gives every impression of having been in love with her, and their correspondence deals with such difficult issues as Samuel’s equal love for her.

On 25 February 1956 Nikita Khrushchev’s so-called Secret Speech denounced Stalin’s purges of other Communists. The speech was so named because the Soviet authorities, while distributing it widely among the governing Communist Party, had attempted to block its publication outside the governing nomenklatura (it did not appear in the Soviet press until 1989). Within a few months however it had been published internationally, including in Britain by the Observer (5 June 1956)

At the start of March 1956 (i.e. after the speech had been given but before its contents were known outside the USSR), Sedgwick told McCrindle for the first time that he was having difficulty defending the Party from its critics.

“This business of safeguarding the Party on shaky issues is difficult, particularly when the other side are being bastards and you want to show them. I’m always coming a cropper this way. One’s expected by these people to be a sort of walking encyclopaedia, producing information on Czechoslovakia, Finland, Azerbijan, the history of the German CP, the attitude of the British Party in 1939, Lenin’s will, and so on, all to order …”

Sedgwick’s initial answer, beyond encouraging Mccrindle (and himself) to read more deeply, was one with which he would not long remain satisfied:

“When all’s said and done, there still remain the genuinely worrying things about the CPSU [Communist Party of the Soviet Union]. Here I think the main thing is not to rationalise and to be frank with other people. We’ve got a big future ahead of us to sort out these difficulties in, and it would be silly to think that what you rightly call ‘the most exciting and important movement in history’ hasn’t got its dark spots and queer patches, even very serious ones – not that this is any excuse for such things. Socialism, after all, is a bloody good idea, and really awfully simple and the criticisms of it are so stupid anyway.”

Even as he wrote these lines, the thought must have occurred to Sedgwick that a non-Communist who cared deeply enough about the left to know how the CP in Germany had behaved (i.e. with disastrous sectarianism) in 1930-3, or that his own party had switched overnight in September 1939 from support to opposition for the war, was probably not a “critic” of “Socialism” but quite possibly its adherent.

After news of the Secret speech had first begun to leak, at the start of April 1956, the Communist Party In Liverpool (where Sedgwick was staying for the Easter holidays) organised a meeting with two members of Executive Committee speaking, Harry Pollitt, the General Secretary, and John Gollan, his intended successor. Sedgwick’s account of the meeting attempted to hold a fine line between Soviet policy, where he accepted that Stalin had been wholly at fault to the detriment of millions, and domestic policy in Britain, where Sedgwick remained optimistic:

“Outside, various groups of Trotskyites and other dissidents were distributing leaflets that made me very pleased, in spite of recent disclosures, that I was and am a Communist. The contents of this literature raged from ‘We Told You So’, to ‘Down with the Reformist British Road to Socialism’, and were fantastically negative in tone. What it so peculiar is that a great deal of what these sorts of blokes were saying about the USSR was evidently right, and yet their political line over here – against the Popular Front, against peaceful co-existence … was plain mad.”

“As for the meeting itself, Gollan surprised me by being monotonous in tone and demagogic – Harry had much more variety in content and expression, dealing mainly (and brilliantly) with the Tory attack, the nature of capitalism and the possibilities for unity. His remarks on the Stalin question were pretty evasive, saying that the present leaders of the CPSU keep silent for the sale of unity (but they didn’t just keep silent, they acquiesced in terror and the deception of millions and the slander of many Communists, including those in Yugoslavia (which was hardly an act of unity).”

“I think that good many changes in our ideas are going to come about as a result of all this”, Segdwick wrote, telling Mccrindle that Samuel agreed. “The pity is that all this ferment isn’t displaying itself in the [Daily] Worker and that there has been no open self-criticism by our Party on the various errors we have obviously made.”

In his next letter of 1 May 1956, Sedgwick explained, the student Communists and their counterparts among the University staff had held a joint meeting to discuss Khrushchev’s Speech. Dennis Butt, a mature student at Balliol with Sedgwick and Samuel opened the meeting (and a mature student and former woolcomber), speaking in Sedgwick’s account, “with great humour, fluency and vigour, and then we all blew our tops”. A speaker from London was present, and did his best to reassert the party line, speaking “about what the USSR had done, e.g. for China, and quoted Nehru on Stalin’s great general influence for peace”. Sedgwick, perhaps surprisingly, described these as “very good remarks”.

“Actually, the worst of the meeting was that we didn’t really get down to anything very practical, in terms of resolutions or letters to the Daily Worker because we hadn’t time after all that heart-searching.”

Sedgwick was starting to form a more developed view of the crisis: “I think that it is quite clear that in respect of some of the things we are arguing for, which cluster around democracy and civil rights, we are at the sort of stage at which socialists were before 1917 – that is, for those things, we haven’t got a working model to cite and identify ourselves with. I think this does have implications for our attitude towards the USSR; it should be open and explicit as to what we support over there and on what principles. The achievements of the USSR must not be judged by the principles of socialism and humanism: we should not, as we have done, alter our socialist or humanist principles to fit what goes on in the Soviet Union.”

As for where, in the Marxist Classics, an alternative humanism might be based, Sedgwick referred very tentatively to Marx’s rules for the First International which “lays down some very simple and decent norms of truth, justice and morality for the conduct of Communists”.

It was probably this passage which he had in mind:

“The International Working Men’s Association has been founded. It declares:

That all societies and individuals adhering to it will acknowledge truth, justice, and morality as the basis of their conduct toward each other and toward all men, without regard to colour, creed, or nationality;

That it acknowledges no rights without duties, no duties without rights.”

(source: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/iwma/documents/1864/rules.htm)

Writing to McCrindle, Sedgwick accepted that the Communists had been “deceived” about Stalin, but wanted to minimise any part they had played in deceiving themselves, “it wasn’t unreasonable or dishonest to be deceived”. And he was still hoping that the damage of the revelations might be limited, “it’s not very likely now that another of those massive transcripts will ever be published again in history”.

Six days later, Sedgwick wrote again to McCrindle. It seems that she had written to him in the meantime (her letter does not survive) reflecting on the trials of the 30s. Sedgwick – her senior in the CP by around three years – was trying to play the role of the mature, committed Communist able to lead his younger comrade through error, but his political compass was no steadier than McCrindle’s.

“The only consolation about these trials”, Sedgwick wrote, “is that it is very unlikely that anything like them will ever happen again, now that it has all come out. I don’t think one can say more than that, because nothing can or ought to mitigate their horror. We don’t know how much was true in them and how much lies. We don’t know if Bukharin had been in opposition in the years before, or not. All we can say is that it was terrible and must never happen again.”

“It was inevitable that someone good and generous like yourself should be deeply affected by what you read in the transcript. It would be wrong if you had not been affected. I can’t pretend to say anything that will make you feel better because none of us ought to feel better about it. Even if the intensity of emotion which we all feel at one time or another fades, as it will fade, we must always have the sense of deep wrong and loathing that these things took place so that we shall never allow our moral standards to be stifled or distorted to allow such things to happen here.”

Sedgwick who, unlike McCrindle, had not read Khrushchev’s speech, was struggling to grasp how much of his old beliefs had been falsified. To speak as he did of Communists as having behaved in a fashion that required “loathing” seems strong stuff, but the vacillation contained in his phrase “it must never happen again”, is also striking. How, practically, could a moral contagion such as Stalinism be stopped from happening again? Was Stalin’s disease limited to Palme Dutt’s preferred metaphor of spots on the sun; or was the Soviet Union (or indeed Marxism, in all its form) compromised? Sedgwick ducked these questions. “I don’t particularly want to defend my old belief that these trials were genuine”, he continued, “They convinced some of the best people in the world (some of the best weren’t convinced at all of course) and it seemed more reasonable at the time I joined that they were true.”

“You know, Jean, that most of the things we have been talking for and fighting for all these years have been right. This again doesn’t excuse the defence of evil things, but we are the best political force there is.”

The correspondence comes to a halt in early May 1956. Later that month, the Party’s Executive Committee announced a Commission on Inner-Party Democracy. While the CP leaders insisted that the Commission would usher in significant changes to the party’s procedures around which both wings of the party could unite, ten of its fifteen members were salaried Party full-timers. The diving line within the Commission was whether to maintain its preferred structure of top-down leadership. Suggestions by the few moderate critics allowed onto the Commission that members of the Communist Party might in future be allowed to stay in membership despite disagreeing with a decision of the EC were rejected by the Commission majority, who accused the critics of a lack of fealty to Leninism: “The minority report gives some lip service to democratic centralism, and then assembles a number of proposals into a sort of platform from which to wreck democratic centralism”

At the 25th Congress of the CPGB, which was held at Hammersmith Town Hall in April 1957, the Majority report was ratified by 472 votes with just 23 for the Minority Report. On the victory of the Majority, around a third of the party’s total membership (i.e. about 10,000 people altogether) left the party. Andrew Rothstein was typical in smearing the leavers as “backboneless and spineless intellectuals”. While it is untrue that the Party lost only middle-class converts (those leaving also prominent industrial workers such as Lawrence Daly, a future NUM General Secretary) the Communist Party’s shopfloor influence remained intact for another twenty years: until its core generation – the “1940s members” – retired at the end of the 1970s.

It would be possible to read this history as a vindication of Sedgwick’s passing reference to the old Rules of the First International, and in particular the phrase that the International, in its dealings with its members and constituent groups, “acknowledges no rights without duties, no duties without rights”. Among the many problems with democratic centralism, as it was practised by the CPGB, was its profound hostility to Marx’s older and richer conception of democracy. It gave the leaders the rights when it came to initiating politics, and limited the membership’s role to propagandising on behalf of decisions which had been taken for them.

As for Sedgwick’s promise to McCrindle that after the Secret Speech there could not be a second revelation of equal significance; the real hammer-blow for most of Sedgwick’s generation was not any second speech, but the entry of Soviet tanks into Hungary to crush a workers’ uprising.

The most striking feature of their correspondence is the willingness of two attempted party loyalists to persuade themselves that their chosen party’s political explanation for its crisis was compelling – at just the same time that revelation after revelation showed that the leadership had been lying. It was not scepticism which forced Sedgwick out but rather belief (repeatedly betrayed) in the leadership.

Many years later, meanwhile, McCrindle would publish her own memories of this time in the journal History Workshop (yet another publication to have been founded by Raph Samuel). “I was learning to be a ‘Good Communist’ to use the expression Raphael Samuel … taught me, which meant being an exemplary student as well as a dedicated and tireless recruiting officer for the Party”

She describes Samuel as “fanatical” in his enthusiasm for Communism, and recalls Sedgwick – no less enthusiastic – sending her the complete works of Joseph Stalin for her nineteenth birthday in 1956. Enthusiasm was attractive. “Raphael and I became engaged and travelled up and down between St Andrews and Oxford until the events of 1956 overwhelmed us and shut out any thoughts of a private life.”

Departure from the Party hurt her, and others, she recalls: “It wasn’t easy psychologically for me to leave the Party, even with the events of 1956 as my solid reason”. But she was absolutely certain that they had made the right choice: “I was amazed and still am that several friends of mine went into the revamped 1970s Communist Party … as if Hungary and what it meant had been forgotten.” (http://hwj.oxfordjournals.org/content/62/1/194.full)

Sedgwick joined the Socialist Review Group, and within the Group and its successor International Socialism, was a sustained exponent of what might be termed the “dissident IS tradition”, i.e. a conception of socialism which drew as much from Luxemburg as from Trotsky, and which was sceptical about any idea of socialism which involved a short-cut from self-emancipation.

I will set out in further pieces his hopes for realignment between IS and the first generation of the New Left, and Sedgwick’s vision of a non-Trotskyist IS.

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10 responses »

  1. One tiny footnote. Some people (e.g. my parents) agreed with the invasion of Hungary but left because they agreed with the Minority Report on inner-party democracy. It wasn’t always a simple matter of all the anti-invasion folks were pro-Minority Report, or all pro-invasion stayed with the Majority.

    • I’m sure that’s right Michael – at the 25th Congress Hill said 7000 people had already left (ie over Hungary). If it’s right that eventually 10,000 people left then there must have been a sizeable portion for whom the battle for democracy was equally important, and who didn’t give up on the CP until that battle had been lost

  2. This is a fascinating piece and I very much look forward to the sequel. Research of this sort is extremely useful.
    One small quibble. I think you are wrong to claim that the “Party’s shopfloor influence remained intact for another twenty years”. On the contrary; while the CP remained a significant force in indutry till the late 70s, it was severely shaken by 1956 and its influence was in continuing decline thereafter. The ETU, where the hard right take-over resulted directly from the corrupt methods used by the CP, was just the most dramatic example. See Steve Parsons’ piece in Revolutionary History 9/3.

  3. Accepted, Ian. Presumably there were also cracks in the CP’s hold over other unions such as the engineers. I understand that Reg Birch was an enthusiast for the invasion of Budapest, but the sense that the CP was – slowly – losing its grip must presumably have played some part in his eventual departure, and therefore of the opening up of the space for initiatives such as Cliff’s pamphlet. (Although I would stand by my main point, that this process was relative slow; building the replacements even to decaying organisations is not an easy task…)

  4. Very interesting — are we seeing here the basis of a Brill/Haymarket volume of Sedgwick’s articles and letters? That would be most welcome.

  5. Coming to this late as I try to follow the advice of Rony Robinson, a prominent regional chat show host on BBC Regional Radio Sheffield and write my own history. I joined the IS via the New Left club and the North St Pancras Labour party, in which Mike Kidron was a member of both. A factual error in your Sedgwick study has the NLC meeting above the Partisan Coffee Bar and restaurant. That was later, after the decline of CND. Its initial meetings were in the Marquee jazz and pop club that could hold up to a thousand. These were led by Stuart Hall, Royden Harrison, Michael Barratt Brown and a strong feminist contingent. Jean McC was not one of these and despite creating nationwide branches and publishing contact info for Br Secs, the central leadership did not work hard at a new structure on branch lines for the New Left, apart from mobilising for CND and even there, photos of the marches show very few branch banners. IS and the SLL did form branches. So the New Left had to meet on Mondays at the Marquee to accommodate the numbers. Jean McC went from the CP and the IS to build the Women’s Movement. You may find out more about her in the book she co-authored on that. ‘Dutiful Daughters.’

    Nick Howard

  6. Readers here might be interested that I’m preparing all three issues The Reasoner for republication later this year, together with a selection of related CPGB documents, a scholarly introduction, and a piece by me on EP Thompson and the Soviet experience. I’m surprised that they haven’t been reproduced before, just a couple of pieces have appeared elsewhere, although all issues of the New Reasoner are available on-line.

  7. Very interesting to read this – and also to hear of Paul’s forthcoming reissue. But please note, David, that Raphael Samuel was Chimen Abramsky’s nephew not cousin. Raphael was a child Communist, he reckoned from the age of about 6 a(1940) – his mother, Minna, and uncles and aunts were all in the Party. See his essays on ‘The Lost World of British Communism’ in New Left Review which I reprinted as a book for Verso. Also Raphael was the prime mover behind the Partisan – and owed many people money!!! Much more to add but will hold off here.
    Alison Light (Raphael’s widow)

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